An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice has found a pattern of civil rights violations by the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department, Attorney General Eric Holder announced yesterday, as the DOJ released a scathing report depicting a local police and court system in need of dramatic overhaul.
“Our review of the evidence found no alternative explanation for the disproportionate impact on African American residents other than implicit and explicit racial bias,” Holder said during a news conference yesterday.
Holder said distrust and animosity between Ferguson residents and the police department built up for years, leading to the weeks of protests that followed the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by then-officer Darren Wilson. The DOJ also announced yesterday that it will not file federal civil rights charges against Wilson, and it is closing its investigation of the shooting.
“Seen in this context, amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings and spurred by illegal and misguided practices, it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” Holder said.
Ferguson officers stopped black residents at significantly higher rates than others, the DOJ found, and the city’s policies are shaped with revenue in mind, rather than public safety. Black residents account for 67 percent of Ferguson’s population, but 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations and 93 percent of arrests.
But in a press conference Wednesday night, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, whose office conducted the grand jury that cleared Wilson, was skeptical of the DOJ’s findings.
“To suggest that (racist policies are) somehow all that goes on out there does a deep disservice to everybody,” McCulloch said.
The report found that the stops imposed “a particular hardship on Ferguson's most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty.” Minor offenses often result in crippling debts or jail time, because of an inability to pay. And the focus on revenue generation, combined with “implicit and explicit” racial bias, has had a profound effect on the police department and court.
“(Ferguson Police Department) supervisors and line officers have undertaken the aggressive code enforcement required to meet the City's revenue generation expectations,” the report’s authors wrote. “(Ferguson Police Department) officers routinely conduct stops that have little relation to public safety and a questionable basis in law.”
In one of many examples included in the report, a police officer parked his squad car behind a parked car in which a black man was cooling off after a basketball game. The officer demanded the man's identification and ordered him to leave his car. The officer then patted him down, but when the officer asked to search the car, the man objected.
“In response, the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson's municipal code,” according to the report. Officers often wrote multiple citations in a single stop, according to the report.
“Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter,” according to the report. “Indeed, officers told us that some compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single stop.”
The report found that officers throughout St. Louis County bypass the traditional judicial process for obtaining a warrant, by using a system of “wanteds” in a state database that indicates to other law enforcement agencies that a person should be arrested if located.
“While wanteds are supposed to be based on probable cause… they operate as an end-run around the judicial system. Instead of swearing out a warrant and seeking judicial authorization from a neutral and detached magistrate, officers make the probable cause determination themselves and circumvent the courts,” the report’s authors wrote.
Ferguson now must overhaul its police and court system, or face a federal civil lawsuit.
In a press conference last night, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said the city is working to resolve the allegations in the report, and avoid a lawsuit.
“Let me be clear, this type of behavior will not be tolerated in the Ferguson Police Department or in any department in the city of Ferguson,” Knowles said.
Read the full report HERE.